I was just watching a football game when an ad for E*Trade popped on using the song, "If I Were a Rich Man," and I'm pretty certain it was a version with Topol, who played the role in the original London production and the feature film. I'm not a big fan of his interpretation (and didn't even go to see the show when he did a revival in Los Angeles a few year back), but it brought to mind this performance I came across recently.
It's the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel at the Baden-Baden Festival last year. Often when opera singers perform popular songs it's a bit off for me, as their style is too grand for the music. But Terfel tends to be the exception, in part because he seems to have a real affinity for musicals. Several years back, I saw him at the Lyric Opera in Chicago starring in Sweeney Todd (which he repeatedly recently on PBS opposite Emma Thompson). And he's fun in a number I've posted her from the BBC Proms, joining in on "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And he's recorded an album of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, Something Wonderful (which you can check out here, if interested).
There's an additional challenge, though, with performing Broadway show tunes out of context, and that's -- well, they're out of context. An actor singing a song within the show brings with it his full interpretation of the character and how he or she has gotten to that point. That's of course not to say standalone performances can't be terrific -- they're staples of pop music, obviously. Just that the interpretations are different.
Which brings us back to Bryn Terfel and this performance of "If Were a Rich Man." Because, boy howdy, does he ever impressively throw himself into the whole thing, more than just the song, and delivers it as if he was doing Fiddler on the Roof. It is not the "Best Version ever," as whoever posted this wrote -- but it sure is wonderful.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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